An Informal Letter to Students (and Parents)
The Challenge and The Solution
The Challenge: Why do intelligent students tend to rely on book notes instead of their own thoughts and analysis?
Surprisingly, I have found that even students in advanced Honors classes often have difficulty in recognizing some plot elements and many themes…or, so I thought. However, I have been enlightened recently by a frank discussion with an honor student who edits my site on occasion. He has never attended one of my classes, but from him, I learned several things:
1) The overwhelming majority of students ARE going to find their answers in book notes like Cliff's Notes, Spark Notes, or Shmoop. They are going to do this no matter what expectations I set, no matter what warnings I give, no matter what methods I incorporate to discourage this.
2) Unbeknownst to many of us teachers of literature, we almost all share an all too common and familiar refrain with our students that goes something like this: "Any answer about the theme (a teacher can substitute any plot element here) is right." Most of us apparently add the caveat "…if the student can support it from the text." Now, personally, I think I add some essential additional considerations to that idea, but that kernel of commonality among all English teachers IS apparently what most students hear and understand.
3) Many students DO have ideas about possible conflicts and themes. Unfortunately, teachers have told them once too often that any answer is a "right" one if they can support it, only to find instead that their supported answer is "unacceptable." Why? Too often, it is because it is different than the one the teacher was looking for or than she could—ahem—find in book notes or teaching notes.
4) Therefore students, in self-defense and being intelligent people who avoid repeating strategies consistently proven unsuccessful, have ceased risking such answers. Instead, they have grown to rely on book notes such as Cliffs Notes, Spark Notes, or Shmoop where the "right" answer is always "right" and readily available. How intelligent can one be, after all, to expend a lot of energy on a method that results consistently in the "wrong" answer, especially when the "right" one is readily and always available?
Sadly, from a teacher's perspective, this results in students who cease to develop the skills necessary to dig in and discover meaning for themselves. Instead, they develop the skills to research appropriate answers their teachers will accept. Frankly, who can blame them? It seems the reasonable course of any intelligent person. In fact, it demonstrates a highly attuned ability to look beyond surface words to the supporting behavior behind them and discern truth from falsehood. Now THAT, that discernment, is a skill I genuinely want to teach.
Unfortunately, looking for answers in book notes engenders a growing deterioration of students' confidence in their abilities to ferret out the “right” meaning on their own. At the same time, looking up answers replaces the practice necessary to develop the very skills that would remedy the situation—recognizing the markers in a text that point to meaning. This lack of practice contributes to students' diminishing abilities and so further decreases their confidence, thereby creating a cycle that gradually robs students of the ability to discover and the joy found in reaching their own epiphanies. They miss out on the deep satisfaction and delight that arise from understanding and pondering the deeper layers of meaning and nuance often present in the books they read. They miss out on seeing the relevance of themes present in them to their own lives. And guess what? Teachers are contributing to this. WE ARE!
The Solution: Stirring up the courage to put the crutches down in an environment that allows you to do so.
1) In our literature courses, students do NOT use those book note crutches until told to open them. Such notes serve much better as book note thought-expanders after first, on your own and with your classmates, fully considering a work in its context. Here is where my extremely helpful editor tells me most of you will either ignore me or, in his words, "run for the hills." (By the way, he is a talented, thought-provoking, truth-telling editor! I will have him back every year if he is available.) However, in our classes, you will find an atmosphere that allows you the freedom to take risks, perhaps even an excitement about doing so, and so develop the skills that will enhance your enjoyment of literature.
2) Yes, it is possible to support a conclusion with the text and still be wrong, but even if wrong, you are brave! You are developing the character that will help you to be true to yourself in college and career. You are taking a risk; you are contributing to the conversation; you are helping to expand the universe of ideas we consider! What you say MUST, therefore, be respected and be responded to respectfully by someone who has fully heard your point and understood it. Furthermore, the one who replies can also be wrong! (And yes, that means even the teacher)!
3) Yes, there are many "right" answers, but there are also "less right" answers, as well as "wrong" answers. However, you should not have to guess which ones are right or to find the only way to ensure you have the "right" answers is by looking them up in book notes! Moreover, every "less right" or "wrong" response is merely a necessary step forward in reaching the best answer.
4) My role as a teacher is NOT to tell you that you are wrong. First, that would be foolish on my part. Previous students will tell you that I frequently find them to be my best teachers by encouraging me to examine ideas I haven't considered before. They will also tell you that I delight in and treasure such moments! Second, stating you are wrong is just NOT my function in a high school classroom. My goal is to help you think, to help you ask yourself the right questions so that you may discover a better answer. What are those right questions? They are those that consistently and logically ferret out insight and truth. You will learn to ask yourself, and ultimately to ask your classmates, questions that will help all to recognize the reasons an answer may be wrong or at least not the best one.
5) Therefore, at Inspired Writing and Literature you will, of course, learn many literary concepts. Much more importantly, however, you will develop skills. For example, did you know there are several approaches to discovering one of the many themes that may be present in any given book? Moreover, did you know that each of these approaches consists of logical, consistent questions you can ask yourself that will always lead you to one of the many "right" conclusions that are considered defensible in literary circles? You will learn those questions! (I now will avoid detracting from this point by avoiding a discussion of the many debates in literary circles—We will leave that whole issue for another day.)
In short, you will develop the relatively concrete skills of literary analysis. Further, you will form confidence in those skills by putting them into action in an affirming, curiosity-driven environment in which taking risks becomes the norm and students puzzle together to reach conclusions based on the text and specific literary methods.
Finally, if I, your teacher, ever fall short of the teaching ideals described above or if I am ever wrong, YOU, after fully hearing my point and understanding it, may find you have developed the skills to respectfully help me ask myself an important question or two. The answers may even lead me to a different approach or conclusion…and, students, I will be thoroughly delighted!
Many blessings to you,